Give credit to improved schools. Or blame crime. Maybe it was a big move in home prices.

Cincy's list of the Top 50 communities this year is anything but static. Except No. 1, which is Madeira.

Last year, Cincy proclaimed the "Rating the Burbs" project "the biggest ever." This year, for the sixth annual "Ratings," Cincy went further.

Combing census data, crime statistics, real estate reports and school facts and figures, Cincy evaluated 140 communities, including more than 69 school districts, to present the most comprehensive look at life in the villages, cities and townships in Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Dearborn County, Indiana.

The result is plenty of changes.

For weeks, we gathered, crunched and weighted the data with surprising results.

Amberley Village is the big gainer, leaping 34 spots from 2011's rankings to No. 7.

Evendale moved up 29 spots to No. 6. Wilder, Ky., moved to No. 18 from No. 39.

Amberley has large lots for homes and lots of green space, "which has created a close-knit community, very quaint," Scot Lahrmer, village manager, says.

"It is a very sought-after community from the standpoint of raising a family. The community itself offers a very high level of services." Lahrmer, who spent much of his career as Mason city manager, likes the small-town atmosphere of the 3½-square-mile village. Police officers serve as firefighters, he says, with Amberley Village being one of just two such arrangements in Ohio .

"It gives us a full complement of personnel to respond to fire emergencies. It's those types of unique features that make us very attractive to homeowners," he says.

On the flip side, two Warren County communities dropped significantly. Union Township, at No. 2 last year, remained in the Top 50 but barely: It ranks 49th. Wayne Township dropped from 16th to 47th. Park Hills, Ky., fell 20 spots to 46th.

Thirteen communities from our Top 50 in 2011 fell out this year, making room for 13 new ones. All of this yo-yoing can be brought on by a dip in home-sale prices, a single homicide (depending on population) or schools that increase or decrease in state academic ratings.

And we welcome Indiana communities this year. We added Dearborn County to the rankings, and Greendale and Hidden Valley Lake debut at Nos. 23 and 24, respectively.

As far as the Top 10 goes, Mason joins Evendale and Amberley Village as the new entries, jumping to No. 10 from No. 19 last year.

Madeira again is the clear winner for a third year in a row. Given all of the movement in the Top 50"”and the Top 10"”this three-peat has nothing to do with Cincy's formula; otherwise, the whole list would stay the same. Madeira scores well in all categories. For instance, with median home prices up in only about 10% of the region's neighborhoods from 2006 to 2011, Madeira's home prices were down less than 3%, keeping it apace with the gainers.

The stable housing prices combine with low crime and a Top 5 city school system.

Madeira City Manager Tom Moeller, , credits a close city-school relationship for much of the rank. He and school Superintendent Stephen Kramer meet regularly. "We have an ongoing significant relationship with Madeira schools," he says. For instance, "they allow us to use their (indoor) facilities, and we provide them with field space and maintenance for outdoor activities. "We're sharing taxpayer resources."

Some communities ask how they can get their ratings higher. The fact is they have little control individually on how they will fare. The numbers are collective, meaning that Cincy looks at all home sales in an area or the average of all commute times to work, for example.

So, basically, if communities ensure that their neighborhoods are safe, their schools top-notch and their housing attractive to buy, they have a shot at moving up.

Cincy starts with the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 decennial census for population figures in the Cincinnati metro area in its quest to rate the burbs.

The Census provides data on 270 villages, cities, towns, townships, Census County Divisions and Census Designated Places in Boone, Butler, Campbell, Clermont, Dearborn, Hamilton, Kenton and Warren counties.

First, we eliminated the Census County Divisions and Census Designated Places, except for Hidden Valley Lake in Indiana.

Those designations might be a combination of a city and unincorporated areas, for instance, and some data, such as crime, cannot be obtained on that level.

Next, communities with population less than 1,000 are cut. The smallest of those in Southwest Ohio were the villages of Chilo and Jacksonburg at 63 residents; in Northern Kentucky, California city was the smallest at 90 residents, while Caesar Creek Township, Ind., was the smallest in Dearborn County at 238 residents.

APPLES TO APPLES

Even though Hidden Valley Lake is a Census Designated Place, it's also its own neighborhood, and Cincy was able to collect comparable data so it's included.

Cincy attempted to collect statistics on Bright, Ind., which also is a Census Designated Place.

Because all the data was not available, it is not included. Ditto on Indiana townships.

That still means a list of almost 140 cities, towns, villages and townships.

Cincy collects 2010 crime statistics from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the most recent as of deadline for this project, which lists four categories of property crime and four categories of violent crime.

Reporting to the FBI is not mandatory.

For areas not contained in FBI statistics, we checked community and state websites, and contacted county sheriffs' offices and township, city and village police departments for a breakdown of the eight crime categories.

If crime stats for a community were not available, it was eliminated from the project.

Crimes are weighted in our rankings "” with murder and robbery given more heft than property crimes, for instance. Through the years, we have heard from police departments who say large numbers of thefts could be the result of having shopping centers, big-box retailers, or sites that draw large numbers of people "” and, therefore, more thefts than average. This year, we gave less weight to thefts for a better comparison.

Home-sales data came from the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors, the Northern Kentucky Association of Realtors and the Southeastern Indiana Board of Realtors. Cincy examined the total number of sales and compared the median prices in 2011 with the medians in 2006. After the 2008 housing bust, prices began to fall and are down in 90% of the areas from 2006 figures. Communities with price gains or stable prices, though, had a good shot at leaping in this year's ratings.

Property tax data were collected from county auditors, treasurers and property valuation administrators to compare taxes for a $100,000 house.

Owner-occupied housing and average commute-to-work times were updated through the Census' American Community Survey, the latest information available.

Cincy added the three school districts in Dearborn County to the education rankings, bringing the total to 69 districts. We checked state report cards, state education department websites and school websites, and consulted the school districts. Various categories were weighted to score each district, and that provided the Top 35 districts.

WE'D LIKE TO HEAR FROM YOU

Sure, even with thousands of statistics, no ratings system is perfect. Let us hear from you. Email or call Editor Dianne Gebhardt-French, (513) 297-6209 or

dfrench@cincymagazine.com.

 
RATING THE BURBS

1 Madeira

Top-notch schools, stable home prices and a commute to downtown of just about 20 minutes keep Madeira at the top of the list. Safety, too. In five years, while some communities saw housing drops of 20 percent, Madeira held on with a decline of less than 3 percent. Ask City Manager Tom Moeller what's new, and he tells you about the hardware store that moved in and the expansion of Kroger. He'll also mention the Madeira Centennial Criterium Bike Race, which drew almost 700 riders last year and an expected 1,000 for this year's race June 29.


2 Wyoming

A community art show, a new senior room opening in the Recreation Center, summer camp and gorgeous homes on tree-lined streets "” that's Wyoming. Add to the mix great schools (a small district with five buildings meeting all 26 of the state's 26 standards) and a slip of less than five percent in median home sales in the housing tsunami of the last five years, and it's one attractive community. Dive In Movie Night at the Family Aquatic Center and swim lessons through the summer spell F-A-M-I-L-Y.

3 Indian Hill

You can't see some of the grand million-dollar homes set back behind hedges and trees from Indian Hill's winding roads, but this village is home to many of Cincinnati's most prestigious families. Committed to its rural character, the Green Areas Advisory Committee includes subcommittees for riding trails and stewardship. Indian Hill schools are rated by the state as Excellent with Distinction. The high school Mock Trial Team won the state championship for the third time in four years "” not surprising at a school offering 20 Advanced Placement classes with a 91 percent success rate.

4 Terrace Park

Tiny Terrace Park located in a bend in the Little Miami River is home to 2,251 people within its 1.3 square miles. More than 94 percent of the homes are owner-occupied with a median sale price of just under $400,000. Not surprisingly, its highly valued trees in the village right-of-way are part of a comprehensive forestry management program and the country club features an 18-hole golf course. The schools rank No. 2 in our data-crunching and the safety rating is a resounding No. 1.


5 Clearcreek Township
(Warren County)

This is the third consecutive year that Clearcreek Township has been rated one of the top communities. One of the larger communities with more than 30,000 residents, it offers great schools. Its always-high safety rating was enhanced when its local police department received national accreditation in 2010. The township spans 44.7 square miles and within those square miles are three fire stations.

 6 Evendale
The community of 2,767 jumped 29 spots on the ratings in one year, in large part because of a nearly 14 percent increase to $294,000 in the median home sale price since 2006. The community rec center offers swimming, tennis, racquetball and even a sauna. The village website links to the headline news that one of its own, former St. X Bomber Luke Kuechly, was a first-round draft pick in April by the NFL Carolina Panthers. The good news just keeps coming.
 

7 Amberley Village

It's the 72nd anniversary of the village's founding and it celebrated by leaping 34 spots from its 2010 ranking. Large lots, a commitment to beautiful trees and green spaces, strong community identity and great services including police officers who also serve as firefighters, make it a winner.

 
8 Villa Hills, Ky.

It began as a farm town south of the Ohio River and grew into a residential town with a population of 7,489. It's a quick commute to downtown Cincinnati and convenient to the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The town has an elementary school and a high school, the Villa Madonna Academy, from which the town got its name. With plenty of recreational activities and outstanding schools, there is much to enjoy.

Villa Hills has it all, including a quick commute to downtown Cincinnati.
 

9 Fort Thomas

Median home sale prices rose in this Ohio River community over the last five years and Highlands High was ranked the number 5 high school in the state by U.S. News and World Report and No. 431 nationally, earning a Gold Medal designation. A full slate of community concerts, a business center with character and an enviable July 4 celebration make Fort Thomas a great place.

10 Mason
 
Home to the annual Western & Southern Open, King's Island and so much more, Mason offers great location, small-town charm and anchors including Procter & Gamble, as well as dramatically expanding businesses such as Intelligrated and Seapine Software. Great schools and stable home sale prices are at the core of the community, which is new to the top 10.
 

11 Edgewood, Ky.

A winning combination of parks and schools makes Edgewood an attractive community. The home to Northern Kentucky's largest health care provider, St. Elizabeth, it edged up in the ratings this year. It has easy access to I-275 and average commute times of 20 minutes. There is great recreation to be had including basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, football, and volleyball.

12 Cold Spring, Ky.

Within a mile of Northern Kentucky University, this Campbell County city has three elementary schools. Nearby are a middle school and both public and parochial high schools. More than 90 percent of the homes are owner-occupied and I-275 and I-471 are within two miles. Both US 27 and the AA Highway run through the city. The city is named for a natural cold water spring discovered in the 1780s. Daniel Boone is said to have been given 500 acres in the area in honor of his service to the country during the Revolutionary War.

13 Anderson Township

Talk about entertainment. The Hamilton County community of Anderson Township has a boatload. Try Riverbend, River Downs and historic Coney Island Amusement Park. With an average commute of 23 minutes, this township of more than 43,000 provides top schools (Forest Hills = Excellent With Distinction) and more than 16 miles of stunning riverfront along both the Little Miami and the mighty Ohio. It's pegged one of Greater Cincinnati's "most livable" neighborhoods.



14 Springboro

Schools that are rated by the State of Ohio as Excellent with Distinction are just part of the winning equation for this suburb with small-town character located midway between Dayton and Cincinnati. Its Christmas festival is a regional favorite, and Springboro has summer concerts and theater under the stars. Median home prices have slipped over five years but almost 87 percent are owner-occupied. Great health care, shopping and retail are all part of the mix.

15 Newtown

Quaint neighborhoods, great parks and fabulous schools make Newtown a solid community. Median home prices edged up while other communities posted double-digit declines.
 

 
  THE TOP 50 COMMUNITIES(click to download pdf)
 

COMMUNITIES

SAFETY

EDUCATION

HOUSING

TAXES

2010 Population

Safety Ranking

Primary School District(s)

Education Ranking

Homes Sold 2011

Median Home Sale Price 2011

Median Home Sale Price 2006

5-year Change in Median Home Sale Price

% Homes
Owner-Occupied

2011 Property Tax on $100,000 Home

Average Commute to Work (in minutes)

1

Madeira

8,726

8

Madeira (also Cincinnati, Indian Hill)

5

134

$195,500

$201,000

-2.74

89.4

$1,526-$2,335

22.3

2

Wyoming

8,428

27

Wyoming (also Cincinnati, Finneytown, Winton Woods)

4

80

$271,000

$285,000

-4.91

82.7

$2,069-$3,097

19.9

3

Indian Hill

5,785

10

Indian Hill (also Cincinnati, Madeira, Mariemont, Sycamore)

3

76

$999,779

$1,200,000

-16.69

96.5

$1,331-$2,140

22.5

4

Terrace Park

2,251

1

Mariemont (also Indian Hill)

2

41

$392,000

$480,500

-18.42

94.1

$1,623-$2,417

22.5

5

Clearcreek Twp. (Warren)

30,265

6

Springboro (also Lebanon, Wayne)

12

125

$249,500

$269,300

-7.35

89.8

$1,824-$1,871

23.5

6

Evendale

2,767

121

Princeton (also Lockland, Reading, Sycamore)

40

22

$294,000

$258,000

13.95

95.7

$1,318-$1,675

19.7

7

Amberley Village

3,585

20

Cincinnati

59

29

$228,000

$292,000

-21.92

97.3

$2,083

19.9

8

Villa Hills, Ky.

7,489

5

Kenton County

61

74

$169,000

$192,950

-12.41

88.3

$1,203

22

9

Fort Thomas, Ky.

16,325

29

Fort Thomas Independent

35

172

$162,750

$157,550

3.30

73.1

$1,644

19.4

10

Mason

30,712

25

Mason (also Kings, Lebanon)

6

307

$292,500

$291,000

0.52

84.5

$1,714-$2,258

23.6

11

Edgewood, Ky.

8,575

33

Kenton County

61

80

$159,000

$186,000

-14.52

89.2

$1,239-$1,425

20.8

12

Cold Spring, Ky.

5,912

68

Campbell County

50

102

$139,600

$152,320

-8.35

93.4

$1,267

21.4

13

Anderson Twp. (Hamilton)

43,446

50

Forest Hills (also Cincinnati)

7

438

$188,250

 
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